When the coronavirus pandemic hit, a Republican candidate for Michigan’s 3rd District shifted his campaign into a food-delivery operation.
Army veteran Peter Meijer’s family owns the Meijer supermarket chain, and he has spent the past couple of months dropping off groceries to would-be voters, as well as to people in the region outside the Grand Rapids-area district.
“When we saw we wouldn’t be able to knock on doors or attend events, we had resources and we wanted to focus those on serving our community,” Meijer told CQ Roll Call during a recent interview.
The initiative caught the attention of Republican House leaders, including Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who threw their support behind Meijer’s bid in the Aug. 4 primary for the longtime Republican seat that Rep. Justin Amash is vacating.
Amash, who left the GOP last summer, said he would not run for reelection so that he could explore a presidential run on the Libertarian Party ticket. The five-term congressman, however, said Saturday that he would not pursue a White House bid after all.
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise said in a statement that Meijer, 32, had shown dedication to his country and community by serving in the Army and “more recently by delivering over 30,000 meals to those in need in his community in response to the coronavirus pandemic.”
But those endorsements also offered a glimpse into how leaders view another challenge: the dearth of women in the House Republican Conference. Scalise and McCarthy backed Meijer over state Rep. Lynn Afendoulis, who could help the party increase its female roster in the House beyond the current 13 members.
VIEW PAC, a group focused on supporting female Republican candidates, has endorsed Afendoulis.
“She’s a solid conservative and really just fits the district like a glove,” said Julie Conway, the group’s executive director. While Meijer can tout endorsements from House Republican leaders, Conway said, Afendoulis has racked up support from state and local leaders.
“She’s been on the ballot, members of her family have been on the ballot, before,” Conway said. “She is a known quantity in the state and in the district. She’s someone that can be trusted.”
During this campaign cycle, more women are running for the House, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, but they still represent just under 30 percent of all House candidates and slightly more than 20 percent of all GOP House candidates.
“While Republicans have a record number of women running for the House, getting those women through the primary is another matter,” CQ Roll Call elections analyst Nathan L. Gonzales said. “I believe Republicans want more women on the Hill, but gender is not a priority for GOP primary voters and donors. Not only does Afendoulis have to overcome the typical fundraising challenge almost all candidates face, she has to overcome GOP leadership backing another candidate.”
Afendoulis, 61, had about $250,000 in cash on hand as of March 31, according to federal campaign disclosures. Meijer, meanwhile, had more than $630,000. His donors include members of the Meijer family, the wealthy DeVos family and a loan of $325,000 from the candidate himself.
“This community, this district is just thirsting for engaged leadership,” said Afendoulis, who chairs the tax policy committee in the state House. “I know the needs and the will of the district.”
Of the recent endorsements of U.S. House leaders for her opponent, Afendoulis said: “With all due respect to all of them, it doesn’t have an impact in my district. Those are not my voters.”
Backing closer to home
Two of her onetime rivals for the GOP nomination in the 3rd District have endorsed Afendoulis: businessman Joel Langlois and pastor Andrew Jackson Willis. Langlois’ slogan, in a show of allegiance to President Donald Trump, had been “Make Congress Great Again.”
In an interview with local publication MLive.com, Langlois said he was backing Afendoulis because he was confident she had “our conservative values at heart.”
Both front-runners Meijer and Afendoulis have been critical of the coronavirus response of Michigan’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, who has imposed some of the toughest state restrictions amid the crisis.
Afendoulis, who is serving her first term as a state representative for the 73rd District, said the GOP-controlled legislature was initially “happy” to give the governor the resources and time “to deal immediately with the crisis.” But now, she said, Whitmer “continues to really trample on our constitutional rights.”
When armed Michiganders demonstrated in the state’s Capitol in protest of the restrictions on the lockdown, Afendoulis said, “I didn’t feel threatened that day.” However, she added that “the optics were awful. … I often wish that they would be a little more moderate in their approach in that way.”
Meijer said the state’s response was “arbitrary” and a lockdown won’t be sustainable over the long term.
As for the pivot to grocery deliveries, Meijer said his campaign paid market rate at supermarkets, including his family’s chain as well as Aldi, Walmart and others. Campaign finance lawyers said it was crucial that the campaign pay the regular price.
Meijer dubbed the operation FRED, for Food Relief Emergency Delivery, but it also is a nod to his grandfather, Frederik Meijer, who founded the family business.
“I approach this from a very unique perspective because our family runs a chain of grocery super centers,” the candidate said. “That’s the background I grew up with.”